Saturday, 5 April 2014

Sakura Season and Pub Crawling in Sano

Every spring a wave of flowers sweeps across Japan. It begins in Okinawa and rolls from island to island to mainland. They call it the Sakura Zensen – the “Cherry Blossom Front” – and its advance is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march. Progress reports are given nightly on the news and elaborate maps are prepared to show the front lines, the back lines, and the percentage of blossoms in any one area.

Nowhere on earth does spring arrive as dramatically as it does in Japan. When the cherry blossoms hit, they hit like a hurricane. Gnarled cherry trees, ignored for more of the year, burst into bloom like fountains turned suddenly on.

The coming of the Sakura marks the end of winter. And in one of those extreme shifts that seem to mark Japanese life, the nation swings from intense work to intense play. These cherry blossom parties, called hanami, are a time for looking back and looking ahead, for drowning one’s sorrows or celebrating another successful year. Toasts are made to colleagues, absent friends, distant relatives and the Sakura themselves. Then, as quickly as they arrive, the cherry blossoms scatter. They fall like confetti, and in their passing they leave the dark green shimmering heat of summer, the wet misery of the rainy season, the typhoons of late August. At their peak – at full blossom and full beauty – the Sakura last only a few days.

During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of sake and sing raucous songs until you topple over backwards.
The Sakura Trees behind my ofice
Much as I would like to claim those words as my own, they are taken from ‘Hokkaido Highway Blues’ by a chap who hitch-hiked the length of Japan called Will Ferguson, following the Cherry Blossom. Should you ever wish to get a good insight into Japan and its people, I highly recommend it.

It is Sakura season right now, and I had my first and sadly only Hanami party a week ago at the British Embassy in Tokyo. It was a cool opportunity to go to a place steeped in history and hang out for a few hours. I suspect that by the time I return from London the season will be done and the time for getting pissed under a tree will be over. As such I decided that to honour the season and to welcome our new national coach, the marvellously named Dhugal Bedingfield, we should do a pub crawl in Sano on Friday night.  

I can’t say that there are an abundance of boozers in this town, but once two men commit to a night of solid drinking then nothing can stand in their way. As such we continued until 1am before a late visit to the 7/11 in order to by fried goodness and more beer to finish off the evening, but not before making my Japanese Karaoke debut and bemusing the small bar of about 10 people with a perfect rendition of Mr Wendal.

Admittedly this is not best marathon preparation. However, every so often, as the Sakura season demonstrates, it is necessary to forget what’s gone before, what is coming up, and simply concentrate on the present.

As I write the marathon is seven days away, I’ve just completed my last long-ish run and I’m feeling worryingly confident about where I’m at. I fly on Wednesday and along with a work conference at Lord’s, a wedding, registering for and then running the London Marathon and seeing friends and family, it should be a quiet six nights. 

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